Last week, the biggest question surrounding Bates Motel was "How is this going to work as an ongoing series?" The story of a boy and his mother, and how that boy became the killer seen in an iconic horror film from the 1960s, would seem to lend itself to the miniseries format more readily than to the narrative elongation required of episodic television. "Nice Town You Picked Norma" felt like an attempt to answer that question, or at least acknowledge that it's a question audiences will be asking.
White Pine Bay, the town that was created around the Norms (a term coined last week by commenter DavidJackson8 to collectively describe Norma and Norman, and that I'm now co-opting for my own use), seems primed to provide multiple avenues of storytelling for the pair to wander through when they're not busy looking longingly at each other on Norman's bed. Some of these elements were introduced in the premiere, but "Nice Town You Picked Norma" expanded the scope of the place considerably, along with its possible threats to the Norms' lives.
As Shelby explained it, White Pine Bay has found a way to maintain its existence by putting up a front made of artisanal cheeses and organic pig farming, while relying on a totally different economy, likely marijuana (among other things, probably), to keep the town afloat and prosperous. But with that sort of an economy comes a particular brand of justice. So while it may be likely that Bradley's father's warehouse was set on fire in response to some White Pine Bay faux pas, it seems all the more likely that the blaze was not sanctioned and, as a result, the person responsible was strung up on a yardarm and set on fire. You know, in full view of the town. As a warning.
If we pile on the sex-trafficking that the motel was used for, based on both Emma's translation of the diary and the final scene of last week's episode, with someone injecting drugs into a woman who was all chained up, then it's pretty clear that White Pine Bay has itself a nicely self-sustaining seedy underbelly that reminds me not only of Twin Peaks (in a way) but also of the picturesque, "crime-free" village of Sandford in Hot Fuzz, though obviously not as funny.
Making the town itself an engine for the antagonistic forces against the Norms did help to ground things. It was one thing for Romero to be "a dog with a bone," because he and Keith Summers grew up in the town, but when recontextualized through the lens of the illegal activities the town runs on, suddenly Summers' murder took on a whole new weight. It helped to better explain Romero's reaction to Norma, and why it seemed like he was more concerned with a newcomer than with the fact that some guy was almost burned to death in his own warehouse. (Though it did make me wonder why the town didn't do anything to keep Summers' property from falling into foreclosure in the first place.)
White Pine Bay isn't the only problem for the Norms that this episode introduced, though: Norma's other son, Dylan (Max Thieriot), arrived on the scene. I'll admit that I wasn't expecting to meet Dylan this quickly, but I'm glad his arrival wasn't dragged out. Dylan's presence wound up serving a couple of purposes in the episode: He allowed us another way into the criminal enterprises of White Pine Bay, and thus gives us a break from the Norms. But he also became another rupture in their lives, one that isn't just a big threat, but also a personal one.
In an odd sort of way, Dylan is something of an audience surrogate. He called out the weird factor of the relationship between Norma and Norman, explaining that Norma has "ruined" Norman through their "tea party." Like I mentioned in last week's review, the Norms are trapped in some sort of a warped sense of the past, and the present keeps encroaching on that. Dylan is a very real intrusion not only because he's disrupted the dynamic between the Norms, but also because he's shattered their sense of being ensconced in a fanciful past. He's a real portion of Norma's past that she's tried to deny, and he knows about her deceased husband and how that husband was apparently not all rainbows and puppy dogs to live with. Dylan may not want to be in White Pine Bay, but to a certain degree he's at least able to keep himself out of harm's way due to the information that he has.
Though it can only protect him so much, as Norman's attack against Dylan demonstrates. It was a wonderfully violent scene that was brutal both physically, in Dylan's beating of Norman, and emotionally, as Freddie Highmore let all that rage just come out through his face, especially in that glower as he was pressed against the fridge. It's to both Highmore and Thieriot's credits that we're able to see the intense amount of bad blood and history between the two in only a few short scenes, but also to demonstrate that there is some degree of brotherly love there as Dylan attempted to get Norma to stop interrogating Emma.
I will say, however, that Norman didn't seem like Norman there, either. We've seen him angry and frustrated, but only ever in a pouty-ish sense. This was different. This was something else. This seemed like it could've been Mother.
– The scene of Norma, Norman, and Dylan sitting in the kitchen while the first two clean may've been my favorite of the episode, especially Vera Farmiga with her face almost right to the floor, as if she'd be able to see microscopic traces of blood. And the pause as the doorbell rang? Hilarious. I like that the show can work in these sorts of humorous moments.
– Based on how Richard totally plant-blocked Norman in the hospital, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the families in this town engage in betrothal arrangements to keep the criminal enterprises going.
– No, Norma, it's not okay for you to change tops in front of your son like that. And, yes, the second top was a better choice. The first one was just ugly.
– Nothing shows off male virility like sawing a log in the town square.
– "Quick! Down here! Don't even breathe. [pause] [whispered] Sorry." I cracked up at that apology. I am worried about Emma, though. That red-orange VW Beetle has to stand out in White Pine Bay, and while we never got an eyeline match on the pot field guards seeing the car, one of them did point in its direction, so I have to assume they saw it.
– I did this with Arrow when I started writing about the show, so if you're curious: I write my reviews for Bates Motel while listening to the music of the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.
What'd you think of "Nice Town You Picked Norma"?